Environmental Policy, Marine Mammals, and Active Sonar: Investigating the Problems and Finding the Solutions

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Second Degree Name

M.S. Coastal Zone Management

First Advisor

Steffen Schmidt

Second Advisor

Brion Blackwelder


The introduction of active sonar into the marine environment by the U.S. Navy has resulted in a highly contentious debate among non-governmental environmental organizations, government agencies, and the U.S. military. The relationship between active sonar deployment and marine mammal injury or death represents an on-going political and scientific reality. Several mass marine mammal stranding events believed to be correlated to Navy sonar have served as focusing events for this debate. The U.S. Navy and NOAA fisheries, under the Department of Commerce, have been accused of violations of the MMPA, ESA, NEPA, and CZMA in lawsuits dating back to the mid 1990’s. The results of the lawsuits have effectively allowed the Navy to continue exercises, while attempting to decrease harm to marine mammals. Court-imposed negotiations have led directly to mitigation measures designed to protect marine mammals, some of which the Navy continues to oppose. U.S. deployment of certain low-frequency sonar appears to violate customary international law, yet the current military exemptions inherent in these laws make enforcement difficult. Research is on-going to determine both the exact cause of marine mammal stranding events correlated with sonar, as well as the physiology and behavior of species which show particular sensitivities to anthropogenic sound. Current opinion on some key issues related to marine mammals and sonar use is presented. Continued negotiations and research combined with a true use of adaptive management by the Navy may offer the delicate balance sought after by all parties.

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